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By Win Grant. Photos by Win Grant and Paul Bickford; video produced and directed by David Powers.

TV history, part 2

Dr. Peter James Flamming

Dr. Peter James Flamming, our church’s fifteenth pastor, arrived in 1983, and in March 1984, Jimmy Shearon was appointed to chair a chancel study committee. My role on the committee was to make sure that if a decision was made to launch a television ministry, we didn’t overlook an opportunity to provide for the physical structures to support television as part of the chancel renovation.

In April 1984, our Easter Sunday service was broadcast live on NBC. This honor was rotated among various denominations each year, and when the Baptists’ turn came in 1984, the Radio and Television Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention invited First Baptist Church to represent Baptists. I suspect that Jimmy Allen’s knowledge of Dr. Flamming’s preaching skills played a role in our selection. Dr. Allen was the chairman of the Radio and Television Commission at the time and a fellow Texan.

NBC sent two “sports trucks” to Richmond for a week before the Easter Sunday broadcast. These tractor trailers of equipment were the same remote trucks the network used for live sporting events. It was genuinely a big deal for FBC to be featured on a live, one-hour national television broadcast. Not long after, NBC eliminated its Religious Programming Unit. As noted in Fred Anderson’s history of FBC, The Open Door, the network broadcast “gave the church leadership an opportunity to consider if televised services might someday become a regular part of their ministry.”

TV history, part 2

Sunday broadcast

In 1986, the church approved the renovation of the chancel area, and at that same time, FBC was again approached by the Radio and Television Commission of the Convention to represent Baptists on television. The Convention had invested in the ACTS satellite channel and had a certain number of hours of programming to produce. ACTS was picked up by a number of local cable television systems and available to millions of cable TV subscribers around the country.

FBC was asked to allow the ACTS channel to carry our Sunday worship service on the “Baptist Hour” for six months. The only catch was that we needed to acquire the equipment and provide the program to ACTS every week. Dr. Flamming referred to the launch of a television ministry as a venture of faith. The FBC Endowment Fund found the money, and David Walker was called as the first “television minister,” as the position was then called. David was fresh out of seminary and was a staff of one assisted by a number of volunteers. We produced 43 worship services for the “Baptist Hour.”

The ACTS satellite channel had limited availability on the cable TV systems in Virginia. The church made the decision to purchase airtime on WRIC-TV, the local ABC affiliate so that our 11:00 a.m. service could be seen locally in the Richmond area. Our relationship with WRIC continues to this day. Some may recall a period in the 1990s when we moved to a 30-minute broadcast to save money on airtime. Our members (and the television station) agreed that the 30-minute service was less than ideal as the program consisted mainly of the sermon, a hymn and a prayer. We were able to go back to the full hour broadcast after a few months.

After six years with us, David Walker left to explore other media interests, and we began the year-long search for a new media minister. I was the chairman of the search committee and told them that I thought we could wrap up our assignment in a few weeks as I had the perfect candidate in mind. David Powers, a video producer at the Foreign Mission Board, had been a member of FBC. I called him up and practically offered him the job. He politely told me that he was very interested and flattered, but that it was not the right time to leave his current job. So the search for a media minister went on.

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David Powers with TV crew volunteers

During the next year, David Walker graciously agreed to help out during the week with editing our program, but all the other responsibilities fell to our loyal crew of volunteers. In those days, we needed a crew of about ten people to record the worship service. After almost a year of searching for an appropriate leader for our ministry, I decided to give David Powers one more opportunity to consider my original proposal. This time, the Lord had spoken to David, and he agreed to talk to the search committee. David joined us in 1993, and took the ministry to a new level.

During the “Powers Era” we upgraded our equipment twice, first from analogue to digital and then to high definition. We established the church’s first website and began broadcasting our Sunday services live on the internet. We established a Bible study class that is carried live on the internet and allows participants from all over the world to email questions and comments during the webcast. The church began to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter, a requirement to reach young people today.

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China video title screenshot

David also produced three memorable special programs. The first was a documentary shot in China in 1996 tracing the work of legendary foreign missionaries Henrietta Hall Shuck who had FBC ties and Virginian Lottie Moon. He also produced two Christmas specials, “A Richmond Christmas” that aired in 1998 and “A Richmond Christmas Celebration,” in 2003.

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Paul Bickford directing broadcast

In the 2010s local television broadcasts of our worship services continue, but the competition is fierce as Richmond viewers have two other Baptist worship services to choose from at 11:00 a.m., as well as dozens of cable channel offerings. The internet will probably make local television broadcasting obsolete in another ten years, but we are already poised to meet that challenge as an early adopter of webcasting. (It was pretty neat a few years ago when we were in Tokyo to turn on my laptop at 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night and watch our 11:00 am worship service broadcast live on the internet.)

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Allen Cumbia in TV control room

Our media ministry is now led by Jess Ward and Allen Cumbia with essential support from Janet Chase and Sean Lumsden-Cook. The weekly worship service broadcast does not just happen. It requires hours of preparation and post-production to produce the program that airs on a one-week tape delay. For the six Sundays each year when we broadcast our service live on WRIC, even more preparation and rehearsal go into the broadcast.

In addition to the great leadership of this ministry there are two essential ingredients without which the TV ministry simply would not be possible: volunteers and money. Every Sunday, about 20 volunteers donate their time to produce the television webcasts and broadcasts. The equipment we have is state of the art. Our cameras were purchased at a substantial discount after NBC used them for two weeks to air an Olympic Games broadcast. Generous contributions from the Endowment Fund and some special gifts by individuals at times when there were critical needs have allowed FBC to pioneer in using TV for outreach and inreach.

We’ve come a long way from our AM radio days of the 1950s but even then, we were one of just two churches in Richmond that had a radio broadcast. So it will not be a surprise that FBC continues to find new ways to reach our members and the world through the use of electronic media.

Read A Brief History of the First Baptist Church Television Ministry, Part 1

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